EH Carr’s sense of history


EH Carr’s sense of history

What is History? still provides a powerful retort to cultural pessimism.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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History has not been kind to EH Carr. When he died in 1982, aged 90, he was still viewed as a formidable, authoritative public intellectual from an era in which the divide between public and academic had yet to become an iron curtain. He was the brilliant historian who, thanks to his 14-volume history of Russia after 1917, was feted, in the words of his friend Isaac Deutscher, as ‘the first genuine historian of the Soviet regime’; he was the man who had birthed the discipline of international relations, with his real-politik championing of appeasement in The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919‑1939, published, with grim irony, as Hitler’s Germany rolled into Poland; and he was the author, most famously perhaps, of What is history? (1961), a limpid, persuasive polemic that proved so popular among the general public that professional historians have rarely stopped dismissing it ever since.

Yet today Carr is an almost wilfully obscured figure. When he is mentioned, it is with bile in the throat. He is that ‘shocking old Soviet apologist’, as one reviewer called him; the most overrated thinker of the century, as a former student labeled him in 1999; a man of ‘unlimited nastiness’, who, in the name of progress, sided with tyranny and justified mass slaughter.

There are obvious explanations for the harshness with which posterity has treated Carr. The Soviet regime to which he pledged his intellectual allegiance, as the rational, planned society of the future, had within a few years of his death been consigned to the past. The significance of his work has become as doubtful and uncertain as the significance of the revolution that inspired it.

As one of his myriad detractors put it, ‘Carr today has a special claim to attention: he was consistently and egregiously wrong’. At best, his judgement looked questionable. At worst, as the opening of hitherto inaccessible Russian archives exposed the horrors of the purges and the Gulag, it looked cruel. And to the seeming inhumanity of the mind, Carr’s numerous critics, refusing to let Cold War animosities go, have been quick to add the inhumanity of the man.

Historian Norman Stone fired the first salvos in this character assassination within weeks of Carr’s death, with a whimsical hatchet job for the London Review of Books, in which he observed that so unlikeable was Carr that ‘his own parents did not much care for him’. Stone then kindly laid bare the conjugal catastrophe of Carr’s domestic life: ‘there were three Mrs Carrs (not one, as The Times obituary claimed), and each marriage ended in hideous circumstances: one wife was left when she already had terminal cancer, another abandoned, when Carr was almost 90, because she was “depressing”. He died in an old people’s home, the matron of which he would ask, piteously, to hold his hand. For Carr very greatly wanted to be loved, and he much preferred women’s company to men’s, although he treated his women so badly.’

Even the publication of Jonathan Haslam’s largely sympathetic biography The Vices of Integrity in 1999 served only to reinforce the denigration of Carr rather than rectify it. The Carr that emerged in Haslam’s telling was intellectually pristine, but heedlessly cruel – it appeared as if he dedicated himself to the life of the mind at the expense of the life he should have lived with others. One reviewer saw fit to reduce his intellectual output to the tribute a ‘misanthrope’ pays to power, be it in the form of Hitler or Stalin. Another concluded, with a sigh of relief, that Carr was ‘a cold-blooded colossus, whose like we shall not see again – thank God’.

Yet this judgement is not only hasty; it also hides what makes Carr’s work of continuing value. Because to be found there is something of huge intellectual importance today: an unceasing reckoning with historical change, indeed, a reckoning with the nature of historical change. That is what Carr did: he confronted the reality and tumult of a world in permanent transition, and rather than simply condemn the forces that were casting asunder the certainties and pieties of his generation and of his class, he sought instead to understand them, to support them even, to grasp the progress where many of his peers saw only regress and imminent collapse. At its best, then, Carr’s work stands as a riposte to cultural pessimism, a retort to all species of declinism and misanthropy – it is a hymn to optimism.

This is where Carr’s biography is important. Born in 1892 to solidly Victorian, middle-class parents – his father owned a writing-ink business – the young Carr grew up in a social environment confident and certain of its own future. His parents’ political creed of free-trade liberalism seemed to be justifying its ascendancy: material living standards were rising; suffrage was expanding; and the period of peace and prosperity that stretched from end of the end of Napoleonic Wars was lengthening. Carr’s own trajectory was similarly and assuredly upwards. A scholarship boy at Merchant Taylors’ School, he moved effortlessly on to study classics at Cambridge under AE Housman, before embarking on what ought to have been an entirely and conventionally successful career in the civil service, or more precisely, the Foreign Office. He was always a singular, fiercely individualistic character but at this point in the early 20th century, he was at home in the world. There was nothing to jolt him into questioning it, nothing to crack the surface of middle-class contentment in Edwardian England.

That was until what Carr referred to as ‘the catastrophe of 1914’. This was the break, the rupture, the moment when Carr was catapulted out of the world in which he, as he put it, felt ‘secure’. All his youthful touchstones, from the sense of inexorable progress to a sense of national mission, were shattered. ‘Remembrance of these things 60 or 70 years later’, he wrote in 1979, ‘must, I feel, sharpen one’s consciousness of the deep cleft which divides that remote age from the present, and of the historical process that brought it about. A civilisation perished in 1914. And no return is possible.’ (1)

This rift in Carr’s development cannot be understated. He was 22 when war broke out. He had almost come of age, and yet the world in which he was to be initiated, the world in which he thought he would make his way, was at that very moment coming to an end. This marks Carr’s thought profoundly. From this point onwards, he is forever trying to come to terms with and understand a world that is no longer immediately his – no longer his parents’, no longer that of his class. For Carr, history is no longer a thing, or a tableaux of dates and personages; it is a creative, destructive process. And so Carr’s reckoning with deep, social and historical change begins.

Carr was far from unique in thinking that ‘a civilisation [had] perished’. This sentiment ran like a black thread through the British culture of the 1920s and 1930s, prompting the declinist visions of historian Arnold Toynbee just as much as the apocalyptic yearnings of WB Yeats or the grinning fascist daydreams of Wyndham Lewis. Others were less excitable, but no less doom-laden. ‘In those [pre-1914] days there was an ordered way of life, a law, a temple and a city – a civilisation of sorts’, reflected the Bloomsbury Group patriarch, Leonard Woolf, in 1939. After the war, he continued, there was just ‘hatred, fear and self-preservation’. The poet Siegfried Sassoon echoed Woolf’s sense of rupture and loss: ‘What a peaceful world it was! And what a bullying, barbarian world it is now!’

But if the Great War cracked the confidence of Britain’s ruling classes, the Russian Revolution delivered the shattering blow. To the bedraggled survivors of the war, communism, not capitalism, looked to be the future. On the left, Sidney and Beatrice Webb proudly announced the ‘the moral bankruptcy of capitalism’ in 1922, while the historian GDH Cole declared in The Present Confusion, published in 1933, that the intellectual case against capitalism had become ‘overwhelmingly strong’. Among avowed liberals, the verdict was no less damning. After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1925, John Maynard Keynes called for ‘the development of new methods and new ideas for effecting the transition from the economic anarchy of the individualistic capitalism which rules today in Western Europe’.

But what marks Carr out was not only his refusal to be downcast, and embrace the cultural pessimism of his peers, but his intellectual determination to reckon with, and even support, the historical forces transforming the world around him. The result, at its highest points, is an unusually developed historical consciousness, a consciousness of the perpetual this-worldly transcending of what is, a consciousness of the necessity and, above all, the promise of historical change. Carr always possessed that sense of an ending, of a worldview losing its position as the ruling worldview, but he developed an idea of a necessary continuing, too, that other historical actors, with their own goals and worldviews, were on the rise.

But not immediately. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Carr’s attitude to the Bolsheviks was personally ambivalent, and professionally obstructive, working as he was for the Foreign Office’s Northern Department to impose a trade embargo on revolutionary Russia. (Although even then, he despised the smug complacency of those in the West, his colleagues among them, who thought the Bolsheviks were a ‘flash in the pan’ (2).) It is actually during a posting to Riga in Latvia in the early 1920s, when finding himself bored, disillusioned and gradually immersing himself in Russian literature, that his world starts to tilt. If Bakunin and Dostoyevsky give him an intellectual shove, it’s the Great Depression of 1929 that delivers the decisive push. In the mid-1930s, Carr leaves the Foreign Office and takes up two roles: the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth; and an editorial role at The Times.

It is at this point, writing challenging leaders from his pulpit at The Times and challenging academics from his rostrum at Aberystwyth, that his reckoning with history begins in earnest.

Change: a reckoning

Carr himself was in no doubt as to the deep, almost latent significance of October 1917. In his 1980 autobiographical sketch, he wrote: ‘It was the Russian Revolution which decisively gave me a sense of history which I have never lost, and which turned me – long, long afterwards – into a historian.’ (3)

Yet, strange as it may seem, the most obvious product of this ‘sense of history’, his multi-volume history of Soviet Russia, lacks precisely that – a sense of history. It is huge, detailed and architecturally intimidating, tracing the development of the Soviet state from its Bolshevik inception through to its bureaucratic Stalinist apotheosis. But Carr’s history seems not so much to move as to proceed. Even at its revolutionary peak in 1917, the inner poetry of history in the making, of militant workers, their revolutionary consciousness fired in factory committees and soviets, pushing the revolution forward, was somehow absent in Carr’s telling. A story of history-making in action became a story of politicians in conversation, a painstaking chronicle of meetings and decisions, of planning and statecraft. This is why the Lenin that emerges on Carr’s pages appears less as a revolutionary and internationalist than as a nation builder, a constitution designer. If Lenin dreams of self-determination or freedom at all, it is only when sleeping. The state never promises to wither in Carr’s telling – rather, it flourishes and bloats. The means to realising communism – an expanded, centralised state, forcefully modernising the industrial structures of Soviet life – start to appear as ends in themselves, and Lenin becomes all practice and no theory. Deutscher’s criticism hits the mark: ‘A Lenin shorn of his unmanageable revolutionary internationalism and shown as master of national statecraft may appear plausibly as nothing but Stalin’s legitimate ideological forebear.’

So if it is not in Carr’s actual history of Soviet Russia that his sense of history is manifest, then where? The answer lies in the book on which his popular reputation still rests: What is History?.

Not that it began life as a book. It was actually born as a series of GM Trevelyan lectures, delivered to a packed hall in the University of Cambridge between January and March 1961. Carr ostensibly saw the lectures as a chance to settle some scores with the likes of the anti-Communist Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, with the latter regularly accusing Carr in public of being an inhuman historical determinist ‘like Hegel’, who, as Berlin put it in a Sunday Times article 10 years prior, only viewed history ‘through the eyes of the victors: the losers have for him all but disqualified themselves from bearing witness’.

But it was more than that, too. What is History?, a question that, after all, could only be asked when the certainties that had long guided the discipline had disappeared, was also a profound reflection on the state of historical consciousness, of our present relationship to the past and future, of our relationship to change. Carr discerned a significant shift in Western society’s relationship to the processes of change. He noted that while the belief of Victorian liberals that their creed was moving history in the right direction had its problems, they possessed something too many in the West now lacked: ‘a sense of change as a progressive factor in history’. In mid-20th-century Britain, there was still much talk of change, he continued, but ‘the significant thing is that change is no longer thought of as achievement, as opportunity, as progress, but as an object of fear’. A sense of an ending hung heavily, suffocatingly, in the postwar air. And the result? ‘A loss of the pervading sense of a world in perpetual motion.’

What is History? can be read, then, as a call to historical consciousness, a demand that we reckon with change, not as something that befalls us, like an accident or a terrible fate or, worse still, a quasi-apocalyptic ending or an inexorable decline, but as opportunity – an opportunity to progress, an opportunity to develop ‘human potentialities’, as Carr himself described it. The final lines of What is History? are a testament to Carr’s reckoning with change, his conviction that despite a culture of fear and pessimism, we go on: ‘I shall look out on a world in tumult and a world in travail, and shall answer in the well worn words of the great scientist: “And yet – it moves”.’

Truth in history

Carr is not simply drawing attention to the inexorable reality of change. ‘Everything changes’ is cliché, not insight. Rather, Carr is making the grander claim, that, echoing Hegel, the only absolute is change. Or, as Carr puts it in a 1972 essay on Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1922): ‘Becoming, as Hegel puts it, is the truth of Being, so that the process constitutes a deeper level of reality than the empirical fact.’ In other words, the truth of reality – and that includes historical reality – is not a thing, or a set of facts, that exist apart from us, like the philosopher’s proverbial table. Rather, the truth of reality lies in the generative process by which things come to exist and appear as things – a process in which humans, as active, increasingly self-conscious subjects, play an ever greater determining role; and, likewise, the truth of history, lies in the generative process by which meaning, significance and facts are constantly being established – a process in which humans, as increasingly historical subjects, play an ever more conscious role. As Carr put it in a 1953 essay on Karl Mannheim, ‘Reality consists in the constant interaction of subject and object, of man and his material environment’. And, clearly echoing this thought in the later What is History?, he adds: ‘The relation of man to his environment is the relation of the historian to his theme.’

This is where we get to the most controversial part of What is History?, namely, its supposed relativism, its seemingly rampant subjectivism, its proto-postmodernist rejection of historical objectivity. That’s because in making change the absolute, in elevating the process over the things it creates (and destroys), of focusing on becoming over being, Carr appears to be devaluing the status of facts. He appears to be saying that facts are created, at some level, by us (albeit through ‘the constant interaction of subject and object’). Indeed, he mocks the empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume which informs, as he sees it, the commonsense view of history, in which facts are assumed to exist independently of the observing or knowing subject. ‘The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab’, he writes. ‘The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’

But Carr is not dismissing facts. He is saying that they don’t exist in and of themselves, as self-contained units of meaning out there in the world. Rather, we play an active, interpretive role in producing facts. Facts do not speak for themselves; they speak for us.

Still it is possible to see why Carr has been accused of half-baked postmodernism, and why, today, he would no doubt be labelled a post-truther. He appears to be saying that truth is in the eye of the beholder and not in the world that is beheld. Yet to think that Carr slipped into ‘the bottomless pit of subjective relativity’, as he himself put it in 1953, is to misunderstand the historical vision that he was in the process of developing. Carr was no fabulist, no magical historicist, conjuring up history to suit his whims. In What is History? he even criticises the American historian Carl Becker who, in 1910, argued that ‘the facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them’.

No, Carr’s historical vision is not relativist, or postmodern, or post-truth; rather, it’s dialectical. It’s dialectical in the sense that truth does not lie in one particular part, or in the subject or the object, but in the whole that mediates the existence of the parts. As he writes of Marx, ‘to study the part without reference to the whole, the fact without reference to its significance, the event without reference to cause or consequence, the particular crisis without reference to the general situation, would have seemed to Marx a barren exercise’. And it’s dialectical in the sense that he grasps subjectivity and objectivity, freedom and necessity, and so on, as dynamic unities, in which each side makes a claim on the other. He writes, ‘Man, except perhaps in earliest infancy and in extreme old age, is not totally involved in his environment and unconditionally subject to it. On the other hand, he is never totally independent of it and its unconditional master.’

Carr is arguing, then, more broadly, that subjectivity and objectivity constitute a dynamic, ever shifting unity, and, more specifically, that the historian is neither free to make things up, nor compelled simply to record what is. Rather he is free to interpret what is, or what was, anew. He doesn’t create his material; he wrestles with it. Which makes sense. No one doubts, for instance, that in 1688, King James II of England was overthrown, and William III, Prince of Orange, installed in his place. But what that means, whether it was a ‘glorious revolution’, or something less than glorious, as Tom Paine was to contend nearly 100 years later, is constantly subject to interpretation. And what grants the interpreter, the de facto historian, this degree of freedom, this space in which to revise, is… history. Or better still, the historical vantage point provided by his or her present. That is to say, as Carr argues, the meaning of the past is always being mediated by the concerns, hopes and desires of the present. So Paine’s interpretation of the Glorious Revolution as a moment of aristocratic reaction is made possible by his present immersion in the radically democratic tumult of the American and French revolutions. Likewise, the constantly transforming interpretation of the past provides a means to understand the present, of how we came to exist as we do, or failed to come to exist as we ought to have done. Carr quotes Jacob Burckhardt here: ‘History is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another’. (Burckhardt himself is an example of this dialectic. He was a 19th-century philosopher, a friend of Nietzsche and, as an historian, he sought out the individualistic genius of the Renaissance as a counterpoint to the levelling tendencies of incipient mass democracy. His present concerns generated his interpretation of the past and vice versa.)

But the charge of relativism would still seem to stand, wouldn’t it? Isn’t Carr saying that the meaning of the past is always relative to the demands of the present? Indeed, isn’t he saying, more precisely, that the meaning of the past is always relative to the political demands of certain present-day classes and individuals? Well, yes, to an extent that is what he’s saying, although in arguing this, Carr never doubts the facticity of reality – he merely argues that the stuff of history is constantly in the process of being illuminated by the changing light cast by the development and trajectory of the present. So, argues Carr, The History of Rome, written by the German classicist Theodor Mommsen in the mid-1850s, presents an idealised version of Caesar, partly because of Mommsen’s frustration with the German people’s inability to fulfil its political aspirations after the failure of the 1848-49 revolutions. Mommsen’s longing for a strong leader in the present drives his search for his existence in the past. But that doesn’t diminish the accuracy or magnificence of Mommsen’s history; rather, it makes it. ‘Great history is written’, writes Carr, ‘precisely when the historian’s vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present.’

But Carr is making a stronger point to refute the charges of relativism. He is arguing, as we have seen, that there is an absolute in history. The mistake his critics make is to assume that it must therefore exist simultaneously outwith history, as something static and forever true, when, for Carr, it can only exist within history. Even that is not quite right, because for Carr, the absolute is not in history, like a swimmer is in the water; the absolute is the rich, contradiction-ridden movement of history itself, its predominant direction, its trajectory, its (always provisional) teleology. Now, this could sound like Hegel’s Geist, or some supra-personal ruse-happy reason. Except, for Carr, history’s movement, its direction, its trajectory is increasingly and simultaneously our societal movement, our societal direction, our societal trajectory. Carr’s absolute is thoroughly humanised – hence Carr’s use of the pronoun ‘we’ in the following passage: ‘[The absolute] is something still incomplete and in process of becoming – something in the future towards which we move, which begins to take shape only as we move towards it, and in the light of which, as we move forward, we gradually shape our interpretation of the past. This is the secular truth behind the religious myth that the meaning of history will be revealed in the Day of Judgement.’

If the theological Day of Judgement is the point at which God steps in to deliver his verdict on mankind, Carr’s secularised version is daily generated and delivered by us. The absolute, then, does not exist at the beginning or at the end of time. Rather, it develops in the midst of historical time, as we, as increasingly self-conscious historical subjects, make sense of the past in light of the ends we project into the future, and try to move towards. These ends are not final or terminal – this is not, as the postmodernists used to have it, a metanarrative. Rather the ends in the light of which we make sense of the past are constantly being revised and fought over by us in the constantly developing present. As Carr writes, ‘the concrete ends pursued by mankind arise from time to time out of the course of history, not from some source outside it’. So for 1960s civil-rights activists, the aspiration for political and legal equality, provided them with a sense of the inequalities and injustices of the past; and for Carr’s more avowedly Marxist contemporaries, such as Christopher Hill or EP Thompson, the disillusionment with Stalinism and the aspiration for a native English democratic socialist tradition generated their splendid social histories of the English Civil War and the 19th-century working-class. So it is our longings in the present, our sense of the future, our self-determined teleology, that lends the absolute in history its always provisional definition, its never finalised, but deepening meaning – and it is our struggles, our conscious activity that constitute the movement of the absolute. Historical truth exists, but as process. It exists practically, as something we are always in the process of proving, of realising. This is why Carr, in opposition to Karl Popper, maintained that the ends in history towards which we struggle – including at that moment, communism – were of their very nature, unfalsifiable; because they are always developing in the stream of history. They were, as Carr put it, ‘unverifiable utopias’.

Carr’s absolute, then, turns out to be something close to an idea of progress. Not in the abstract. No, progress works itself out in the concrete ends towards which people struggle, and in light of which, interpret the past, and determine the present. This is the moment at which Carr’s reckoning with the historical forces that have cast the long 19th-century asunder turns into something else: a recognition that the absolute, which, after all, is nothing more than the developing self-consciousness and striving of an ever widening portion of humanity, is still moving towards something else. For Carr, this was socialism. But its meaning can shift. This was his optimism of the will. His faithless faith.

The sense of an ending

But it is precisely at this point that Carr has never seemed so anachronistic. This is partly because his vision of history as the history of humanity’s history-making self-consciousness carries within it a sense of optimism, and a belief in progress, that is sustained by his admittedly idiosyncratic belief in an already existing alternative to capitalism. Even at the time of the publication of What is History?, and especially during the 1970s, when Carr wrote a new introduction for it, his optimism clashed with the sense of collapse and catastrophe that dominated the Western mindset. Then, the oil crisis, the Vietnam War and environmental degradation were all expressions of this sense of an ending. Now, there appears to be even less to sustain Carr’s optimism. If the prospect of environmental collapse has provided West’s gloomy mood music for the past couple of decades, then Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have provided the cacophonous, catastrophic sense of a break. Or at least they have done for a section of Western society. The prominent forms of their historical consciousness reflect this, be it the penchant for the big cosmic histories of the end of the universe, or, after 2016, the shrill revisionist focus on the 1930s and the rise of fascism as the prelude to our future. Carr’s response to the doomsayers of the 1970s is worth recalling:

‘My conclusion is that the current wave of scepticism and despair, which looks ahead to nothing but destruction and decay, and dismisses as absurd any belief in progress or any prospect of a further advance by the human race, is a form of elitism – the product of elite social groups whose security and whose privileges have been most conspicuously eroded by the crisis, and of elite countries whose once undisputed domination over the rest of the world has been shattered.’

Carr’s insight here is indispensable. It is not that the world really is caught in some sort of fascist or climatological death spiral. Indeed, it is not that the world is really in decline, let alone ending. No, it is the worldview of the today’s elites that is in peril, not the world itself. It is being rejected, flouted and attacked… by millions. One worldview may be falling, but others are emerging, with their own as yet inchoate ends, in light of which the past will be interpreted in the present. The absolute, the movement of history, persists. It persists in and through those today who are in the process of sensing their own ‘unverifiable utopias’, be they new forms of democracy or an enlarged sphere of freedom – those, that is, who have the future in their bones.

And yet it moves.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.

All quotes, unless otherwise stated, from What is History, by EH Carr, Penguin, 1990, (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) From Napoleon to Stalin and Other Essays, by EH Carr, (Palgrave MacMillan, 1980), pvII

(2) ‘An autobiography’, by EH Carr, included in EH Carr: a critical appraisal (Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), pXV

(3) ‘An autobiography’, by EH Carr, included in EH Carr: a critical appraisal (Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), pXV

(4) From Napoleon to Stalin and Other Essays, by EH Carr, (Palgrave MacMillan, 1980), p244

(5) From Napoleon to Stalin and Other Essays, by EH Carr, (Palgrave MacMillan, 1980), p180

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